Jack Butcher | Indo-Pacific Fellow
Japan's immediate region is becoming increasingly unstable, and Tokyo is using all the means at its disposal to try and address it. At the International Fleet Review held on November 6, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida vowed to “urgently strengthen Japan's military” and increase the response capability of the US-Japan alliance. Although Kishida has been embattled domestically over the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's (LDP) links to the Unification Church, Japan's deteriorating security environment is giving rise to a Kishida doctrine in foreign and defence policy. What are its features, and how will it help achieve Japan's long-term strategic objectives?
A "Progressive Realism"?
In June 2022, Kishida laid out the "five pillars" of his "vision for peace" at the Shangri-La Dialogue Forum in Singapore. These included: (1) strengthening a rules-based international order, (2) enhancing Japan's defence capabilities and reinforcing cooperation with the US and "like-minded" partners, (3) realistic efforts towards global denuclearisation, (4) strengthening the UN and reforming the security council and (5) intensifying international cooperation in new policy areas such as economic security. Although Kishida's five pillars mirror much of what the late former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe envisioned for Japan, there is more than what meets the eye.
Kishida has previously called for a “realist diplomacy in a new era”. Under this, Japan would emphasise ‘universal values’, efforts to resolve global issues and protect the livelihoods of the Japanese people. Japan would also increase its defence spending from 1% to 2% of GDP within five years. Despite a pledge for a “thorough realism”, it remains difficult to determine how “thorough” it can be without amending Article 9 of the constitution, which renounces war and bans the development of offensive capabilities. After vowing to amend the constitution in July, Kishida has since admitted that reform would be difficult. There has been little talk of it since.
Instead, Kishida’s decisions so far in his foreign and defence policy indicate the emergence of a "progressive realism". Under this, Japan would maintain a strong defensive posture while promoting itself as a regional normative power. Notably, Kishida’s ardent support for non-proliferation, net-zero by 2050 and restoration of multilateralism post-COVID-19 display Japan’s growing “smart power” credentials. This progressive realism also chimes well with opposition parties and voters who might be sceptical of changing Japan’s pacifist stance, particularly as public pressure mounts over the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) connections with the Unification Church.
Defence Diplomacy with Australia and Southeast Asia
Aside from strengthening the US alliance, one of Kishida's major priorities has been promoting deeper strategic engagement with "like-minded" partners. Mainly, Kishida has looked to Australia as a central pillar for cooperation due to shared concerns over China's growing assertiveness, protection of regional supply chains and ensuring energy security. This growing convergence was codified by the signing of an upgraded version of the 2007 Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation in October, which provided an ANZUS-like clause to consult in the event of a threat to each other’s national security.
Kishida has also sought to engage ASEAN member states on defence. This comes amid concerns that Japan is losing economic influence in Southeast Asia to China. Tokyo views long-term access to investment markets and raw materials as connected to its national security. During the Shangri-La Dialogue, Kishida unveiled his plan to strengthen maritime security by providing Southeast Asian countries with patrol boats to prevent the region from “becoming another Ukraine". In November, he will visit Thailand, Indonesia and Cambodia for the upcoming APEC, G20 and ASEAN summits. Kishida will likely use Japan's positive reputation among regional elites to strengthen commitments to an "free, inclusive and open" region while safeguarding Japan's continued economic access to Southeast Asia.
Openness to engaging sceptical neighbours
The most pointed departure from Kishida's predecessors is a willingness to engage in constructive dialogue with Japan's sceptical neighbours. Japan's relations with China and North and South Korea have become notoriously strained in recent years due to the late former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's historical negationism. North Korea's recent launch of an intermediate intercontinental ballistic (ICBM) missile over Japan has led Kishida to keep all options open, including direct dialogue with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, to decrease the likelihood of conflict. Kishida will also likely meet with Chinese leader Xi Jinping soon for the first time since 2019 to discuss the management of tensions in the Taiwan Strait and the East China Sea.
In possibly welcome news for the US, Japan and South Korea have signalled some intent to repair relations. Surrounded by four potential flashpoints; the Korean Peninsula, the East China Sea, Taiwan, and now the Kuril Islands, cooperation with conservative South Korean President Yoon Seok-yeol would boost Japan's ability to share the burden in jointly countering potential threats from North Korea and China. Despite this, Kishida's unwillingness to revisit the comfort women issue may result in hesitancy from Seoul to improve ties too quickly without concrete concessions.
Although still early in his tenure, a distinct Kishida doctrine is beginning to emerge due to global shifts and domestic pressures. Particularly, Kishida's emphasis on enhanced dialogue with regional power marks an innovative turn in Japan’s defence and foreign policy that seeks to quell deeply held concerns and increase Japan's normative power. Most importantly, Japan will be better placed to navigate its unstable regional periphery and take advantage of diplomatic breakthroughs when they arise.
Jack Butcher is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.